Pilgrims enroute the Nanaksar Gurdwara in Punjab’s Jagraon know Mehatpur as a popular pitstop on National Highway 71. But amid the ongoing crackdown on Waris Punjab De chief Amritpal Singh’s supporters, it turned into a site of a wild this week.
Amritpal’s uncle and his associate before the police after the chase. However, with the suspension of mobile internet in the state, and a narrative in certain sections of the media portraying the area as the birthplace of some of the arrested suspects, locals are not amused.
“You will take our interview and then lie on your TV. Please leave us be,” a tea shop owner tells a bunch of reporters who had gathered to take his byte in Mehatpur, after the surrender. The street housing the outlet was littered with a posse of mediapersons, who pointed to the location as the spot where Amritpal allegedly fled from.
Locals share a common distrust towards “godi media”, calling coverage by certain news channels an attempt to “sensationalise” the situation on ground. Life goes on as usual, they say, despite telecasts claiming that the situation is “volatile” amid a “rise” in pro-Khalistan sentiment in the state.
Tarsem Singh, a 60-year-old resident of Mehatpur, claims to have met slain Khalistani militant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale once, and says that Amritpal is only a “kal ka chhokra” with “no weight” in his remarks. Naming a prominent Hindi news channel, he says its coverage “aims to portray the situation in Punjab as volatile. However, the reality on the ground is quite different, and such reporting is an exaggeration.”
His son Sanal, who recently returned to Mehatpur from Canada, shares his father’s views. However, he also blames the narrative on social media by Sikh diaspora groups.
“On Saturday, the police action lasted for about 25 to 40 minutes, and the road was blocked for another hour or so. All the shops were open throughout, and that night, I went with friends for a walk around and had ice cream. The CRPF was there, but no one said anything. The noise and fear-mongering about this is…all online by the diaspora groups and politicians.”
Labh Singh, a 29-year-old who works as an apprentice with a local blacksmith in Jalandhar, is just one among the many youngsters in Mehatpur who have been curious to watch videos of the action and, in the absence of mobile internet, are sharing clips through data storage devices. He zooms in on his phone screen, pointing to visuals of Amritpal’s uncle who was arrested after a chase in the area. He assures this reporter that “none of them are from here”.
While Amritpal continues to evade arrest, several Twitter accounts have been in India, including those belonging to a few journalists, Canadian poet Rupi Kaur, and politicians.
More than 150 suspects linked to Waris Punjab De have been held across the state so far with the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee president Harjinder Singh Dhami asking the Aam Aadmi Party government not to target “innocent Sikh youths”. Shiromani Akali Dal president Sukhbir Badal on Wednesday legal aid to those arrested in the ongoing “extra-constitutional crackdown”.
Meanwhile, days after Khalistani supporters pulled down an Indian flag outside the Indian High Commission in London, the police outside the UK High Commission in Delhi on Wednesday. Protests similar to the one in London were held in San Francisco. These were only the most recent signs of the presence of a support for the separatist ideology within the Sikh diaspora in the UK, Australia and Canada.
The response on social media suggested that a section of the diaspora was fishing in , exaggerating the situation in Punjab as a complete suspension of fundamental rights, comparing it to the dark days of the state crackdown against militancy in previous decades.
Be it Canadian leader Jagmeet Singh, Indo-Canadian politician Gurratan Singh, or the World Sikh Organisation of Canada, several accounts accused the Indian authorities of “repression”.
However, Sanal says politicians try to capitalise on pro-Khalistan sentiment abroad despite a “majority” of the population not interested in the issue and a “portion” of the diaspora not supporting the demand. “This often involves inflating what is happening in Punjab and portraying the situation as direr than it actually is.”
Simram Kaur*, a 24-year-old farmer from Jalandhar, says she does not support Amritpal and his brand of politics because “the way he interprets Sikhi and Sikhism is absolutely wrong”.
“The only times I have heard him, he has only talked about violence, and picking up weapons and demanding rights which he thinks that us normal Sikhs don’t have…that us Sikhs are slaves here in India,” she says. “Being an Indian Sikh, I have never felt like a second class citizen in this country…He also says that women should never cut their hair or indulge in vanity and that the day he gets power, he will ban all parlours…Sikhism always promotes women rights.”
Bhaaginder Singh, an activist, says he appreciates the diaspora’s support for the farm protests but the situation on the ground is “nothing like what they say on the internet”. “Farm protest was a movement that was supported by everyone across religion…This issue is different. No sensible person will support him. You support them because either you want self promotion or you are not educated in religion or the history of Punjab. One doesn’t have to go much further in history but to 1984 to realise the similarity in pattern.”
Meanwhile, Gurnoor Singh, a 34-year-old Raagi at Gurudwara Singh Sabha in Jalandhar’s Model Town – which was recently subjected to vandalism by Amritpal and his followers over alleged disrespect to religious norms – agrees with Amritpal’s opinions on the code of conduct inside religious places. However, he disagrees with the Khalistani leader’s views on the Indian passport and identity, and the violence in Ajnala.
*Name changed to protect identity.